Now that you understand why beer pairs so well with food, let’s discuss how to go about making those magical pairings happen. Even though there is usually more than one beer pairing option for every meal or snack, certainly not every beer pairs well with every food.
The wrong pairing can distort and exaggerate flavors in food or beer, leading to a harsh, unfriendly experience. Keep in mind these five ground rules, however, and you’ll soon be drinking your way to gastronomic nirvana.
1) Match flavor intensities. This rule is pretty basic, and sometimes is just common sense when it comes to pairing beer with food. That being said, it’s one of the most important rules to a successful pairing: pair big, intense beers with big, rich foods and lighter beers with lighter fare.
You don’t want one element to overwhelm the other: instead, you’re looking for a nice balance where the flavors of both the beer and the food are enhanced and enlivened by the pairing.
In practice, this involves drinking lighter-flavored, lower-alcohol beers with lighter food like salads, fish and bread: try pairing a hefeweizen with your spinach-and-orange salad or a Belgian wit with your poached salmon. Conversely, big, bold beers like American stouts and IPAs will work better with rich, intense foods like steaks or bold cheeses.
2) Look for ways to balance or contrast flavors. A wonderful trait of beer is its ability to temper food flavors that would otherwise be overwhelming or at the least, bite-limiting. For example, big, cloying sweetness in desserts can be counter weighted by bitterness in beer, like that found in an imperial India pale ale; and salty foods will be nicely balanced by an acidic brew: try salty, briny oysters with a sour Belgian gueuze or lambic and you’ll understand just how that works.
Another notable beer-food balance involves spicy food. Wine generally amplifies heat from chilies or spices, but a nice malty, sweetish, lower-ABV beer like an English brown ale can calm the heat and offer a pleasing counterpoint to the meal.
3) Look for flavor harmonies. Pairing beer with food allows you to truly latch on to and enhance many of the flavors in food that wine can’t mimic: we’re talking caramelization, smoke, chocolate and more.
Matching flavors in your beer with those in your food tie the pairing together and can create a transcendental experience in which you don’t know where the beer ends and the food begins ... or is it the other way around?
The ingredients, seasoning and preparation of the food will all play a role here, and attentive tasting will allow you to fine-tune your pairing to perfectly marry the food and the beer.
4) Start small and move to big. To maximize your flavor experience, start with lighter fare and beers and progress to heavier, richer dishes and more intense beers as your day and/or meal goes on. This will keep your palate from getting fatigued too soon … and will also help you stay sharp until your guests are ready to leave.
5) Practice frequently. The fun of beer pairing is discovering new flavor combinations and interactions all on your own. Plus, the more you practice, the more beer you get to drink! By simply paying attention to flavors and their interactions and taking a few risks, you’ll soon be making your own beer pairing magic.